Travel Journal

Beijing 16 -19 June

(Tuesday 21 June 2011) by Julia Bartholomew
The city. The backpackers I stayed at is in the 'hutong' quarter, a windy set of alleyways with low grey stone buildings, shabby but with character. Some of the hutongs are lined with cafes, bars and shops selling trendy tat, some are residential and still have old boys sitting outside in their jim jams playing board games. As far as I can tell the residential bits, the scruffier buildings with chaotic electric cables dangling overhead, are old and the commercial streets are new, recently rebuilt to recreate some of the city's old charm after the old ones were bulldozed. Not at all what I was expecting Beijing to look like. What I had imagined was rather the Beijing I saw on Saturday night when I met up with a friend's cousin who lives here at the '[something in Chinese] village' in Sanitlun, a vast shopping centre with endless restos, shops etc, incluing a gigantic apple store, all built for the Olympics. The word 'village' was hijacked a long time ago, by us and the Americans, so can't blame the Chinese for that, but it would be difficult to think of something more removed from an actual village. The first giant shop you come to in the 'village' is Uniclo and we had Japanese for dinner. I thought the Chinese hated the Japanese but it seems retail is a great healer of old enmities. Anyway, this Beijing was the metropolis Clark Kent and Superman would recognise: lots of very tall, shiny buildings, people and buzz. A real city and mostly brand new.

The food. I'd heard views both good and bad on the food in China. I had to have Peking duck, of course, and it was excellent. On my last night in Beijing and I went to a Sichuanese place with a pretty courtyard where I was treated like a princess. The waitress rolled my Peking duck pancakes for me, very skillfully, with her chopsticks. Ever the tourist I then picked them up in my fingers, which seemed preferable to trying with the chopsticks and her good work ending up in my lap. On Friday, sitting by a lake in Jingshan park I had chicken soup and pork dumplings. The soup was tasty and floating in it was some mysterious white matter and as I slurped tried not to think about whether it was animal or vegetable (its texture suggested the former). The dumplings were also tasty with something satisfyingly meaty and gelatinous inside. Again, better not to think about what that could have been. Must get someone to teach me how to say ' no puppy please' in Mandarin.

The driving! Exhilirating, thrilling, terrifying. Sitting in the front passenger seat of a taxi, you have to forget everything you've been taught about driving. Driving here is about going sideways as much as it is forwards- more akin to dodgems really. Drivers hover across lanes, not wanting to commit to one or another. They hoot all the time, not in an agressive way, just as a kind of statement of being. If another car tries to move into your lane in front of you, you accelerate and try and stop him, and carry on even when you know he's far enough into your lane there's nothing you can do. Motorized push-bikes and rickshaws buzz about in all directions, parp-parping constantly. I love riding in taxis here. partly for the adrenaline, partly becase they're absurdly cheap and the longest one I got - an hour out to the train station still only cost 50 yuan, which is under a fiver (sterling).

The Great Wall. The hostel organised a mini bus to one of the more remote, less touristy bits of it at Simatai, where parts of it are Ming dynasty (C16th I think so old-ish but not really by Chinese standards) and the views are spectacular. Built to keep foreigners out, the modern commercially-minded Chinese are now re-building bits of it to draw foreigners in. Our guide repeated that saying about being able to see it from the moon but politely no one pointed out to her that it's patently nonsense and in any case I read that the claim was first written in national Geographic in 1923 so long before Armstrong and co. At the beginning a group of Chinese hangers-on infiltrated our group, former farmers who have given up toiling on the land to make a living out of great wall tourists. Doubtless a less brutal way to make a living but it wasn't initially clear how they hope to make money out of us. They seemed to be offering a kind of moral support service: ' careful on the step!' 'only 10 more towers to go!' and some did some fanning too, but they were more of an irritant really and only encouraged a more athletic walking pace in most visitors, including me, which was mostly successful in shaking them off. Some did bring out 'I climbed the great wall' t-shirts later on, which seems a more tangible way of making money although one or two of the chatterers did receive money for their irritating patter. At the end of the 3 hour hike I saw one couple in our group with one of the farmer's wives, by now in such a state that the girl was fanning her while her boyfriend fished out a wad of notes. Result!

The summer palace. Magnificent! Those lucky, lucky, luck Emperors as Prince George would have said to Blackadder. A vast lake stretches beyond the horizon, dotted with traditional wooden boats with roofs and C17th willows line its banks. My favourite feature was the marble boat which the Dowager Cixi had built at the beginning of C20th: a splendid gesture of pointless extravagance from the same lady who had ten thousand caged birds released each year on her birthday. There's a beautiful painted covered walkway along the lake, about a kilometre long, which my audio guide tells me was declared by the Guinness book of records to be the longest corridor in the world in 1991 (did someone build a longer one in 1992 I wonder).


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